The Expandable, Versatile MadTux LivePC

Posted by dcparris on Feb 28, 2006 8:51 AM EDT
LXer; By DC Parris
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  LXer Feature: 28-Dec-05

LXer editor, Don Parris, takes a gander at the MadTux LivePC. Whether you just want to provide Internet access to visiting relatives, setup a computer lab down at the church, or support a high-tech, roaming workforce, you're likely to find the LivePC easy on the budget and heavy on the utilities.

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Whether you want to replace an old box and still keep your hard drive, or you need several low-cost boxes to fill up a computer lab down at the local church or school, you'll find the MadTux LivePC an excellent choice. Need something highly mobile and personalized? The LivePC runs off a USB key, and can be expanded to serve a variety of needs. I could sum up the LivePC in just three words, "it just works". Still, let's see what we're getting and how well it works.

What You Get

The test box I received has a different case than the consumer box, and was rigged with a USB 1.0 key, instead of a USB 2.0 key. That makes it a little bit slower. There is no "sleep" button on this box, either. The box you purchase will have the nice case displayed on the website and a USB 2.0 USB key. The box boasts an 800MHz processor with 512MB of RAM. As is, there are no hard drives, CD/DVD drives or anything with moving parts. It literally runs off the USB key. This makes for a quiet, yet powerful box that can easily handle typical desktop use. Users can add up to four hard drives, DVD drives and other peripherals as desired.

As far as the software is concerned, you get a complete Knoppix 4.0.2 system running, Firefox, Thunderbird and The Gimp, among other applications. You'll have the ability to setup the Knoppix Firewall and perform other networking tasks. KNetAttach let's you establish an SSH or other connection in Konqueror. Knoppix allows you to create a "persistent" image for storing your personal data. Additionally, users can upgrade by purchasing a new USB key or sending their current key in to let MadTux upgrade it for a nominal fee.

How It Works

What you get sounds pretty good, but do the goods match the hype? Well, I dug into the box to find out. Bearing in mind the differences noted above, I hooked up an old Compaq 151FS monitor and a cheap pair of speakers. This box boots Knoppix 4.0.2 about as fast as my 1.2GHz AMD box running SUSE 10.0 from the hard drive. actually loaded faster than on my primary box. Once you're up and running, KDE users will find themselves right at home.

I setup Knoppix to get it's network address via DHCP. I used KNetAttach to connect to my primary box via SSH and opened images, played music and even ran the videos I made on my Kodak CX6200 digital camera. I also used the Knoppix menu (right on the KDE panel) to create a "persistent" Knoppix image, which allows you to store documents and other data. MadTux left room on the USB key for about 284MB of data. I chose to create a 200MB partition for grins and giggles. When finished, I was able to create a folder and a text file on a permanent basis.

I made this harder than I needed to by not reading the instructions correctly. On the other hand, skipping a portion of the "image successfully created" message gave me a chance to see how MadTux is with e-mail tech support. Their explanation made it clear I was trying too hard. If you never done this, just follow the instructions after launching the utility. When you reboot the MadTux LivePC, Knoppix will recognize the image and ask you what you want to do. A dialogue box should have a line about the persistent image. By default, "Cancel" is selected in the dialogue box, so be sure to select "O.k" before you hit [Enter].

While creating the Knoppix persistent image, you'll be able to determine whether or not to encrypt your data. Since I don't see me carrying any sensitive data on this key, I chose not to. If you need to do so, you'll have to create a "very lengthy password", according to the message, at creation time and then give your password when you boot the LivePC. It might seem like a hassle, but if you really need to keep sensitive data, it would only be a minor one compared to the trouble you'd face if that data found its way into the wrong hands.

Finally, I went and added an old 8GB hard drive that still had a dual-boot Windows XP and SUSE Linux 8.0 Pro setup. At any rate, when the LivePC boots into KDE, all the hard drive partitions are right there on the desktop for me to explore at will. So explore I did, and discovered some old data I wanted to recover. The small case required me to insert the drive from the front, unlike with a mid- or full-sized tower. Thanks to the MadTux LivePC, I am able to recover my data, and possibly find a new use for the drive. I sure do need to get rid of that Windows partition!

What It's Good For

Although the LivePC MadTux offers could certainly be used for recovering data from old hard drives, it seems far more apt to be used in a thin client environment. The LivePC seems ideal for Internet cafes, church or school computer labs, Linux training centers and similar environments. Each user could have their own USB key, and hard drives or other devices can be added if needed to allow additional uses. Richard Brincefield, of Global Literacy, sees cheap computers running GNU/Linux as the ideal way to reduce IT costs in schools. The MadTux LivePC may be just the what the doctor ordered.

It also works great as a PC for the kids or simple Internet use. Setup a LivePC in your daughter's room, and let her connect to the Internet through your Squid proxy. Setup the LivePC in the den to give your visiting relatives a chance to check their e-mail without giving them access to your computer. Put one in the kitchen with a set of speakers to let the family chef look up recipes and listen to cool tunes while preparing dinner. You could even use the LivePC as your firewall. Pop in a CD or DVD writable drive and let people store their data on a disc. Give your guests their own USB key.

When I spoke with the folks at MadTux about the LivePC, I asked whether they were considering adding other live distros, such as Ubuntu. In fact, they already have an Ubuntu key in the works. It should be out soon. Can you imagine what that could do for Linux training centers? Need to teach a different distribution this week? No need to re-image those hard drives, just give your students a USB key for the LivePCs in your lab.

In my experience, the MadTux LivePC is not a super-charged speed demon. It is a versatile little box that offers plenty of flexibility. This little box will take it easy on your wallet - or your business budget. And while I initially strained to see the point of a LivePC, I'm pretty certain you'll be able to find additional uses for it.

The MadTux LivePC

  • Price = under $200
  • CPU = 800 MHz
  • RAM = 512MB
  • Sound Card = VIA

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